By Ron Hyink
A business deal that went sour for Milton Lee turned out to be a huge blessing. All he wanted to do was acquire his own business so he could work close to home and spend more time with his sizeable family.
A tip from his brother-in-law led him to make an offer on a company going out of business. So he made an agreement with the company’s owner and said he would come back that Friday to finish up the deal. “And 30 minutes after I had left, another guy walked in and laid his money down on the counter, and so that put me out,” said Milton.
It was a bitter disappointment, but, blessings being what they are, it turned out that two other companies were going out of business at the time. So in November 1978, Milton bought a small, upstart precast concrete septic tank manufacturing business near Aberdeen, Mississippi, that is now known as Lee’s Precast Concrete Inc.
With little more than two forms and a truck, Milton went to work to provide for his family as he watched his children and his business grow. He had no batch plant at the time, relying instead on outside help. “We poured with ready-mix for about five or six years, and then we got our own truck that we mixed our own concrete in,” he said.
He also had a 1-ton crane that he could use to move forms around, but it couldn’t lift the finished product. “We always had to handle the tanks with the trucks,” said Milton. “That’s where I got started, and it just got bigger and bigger. And now the children are running it.”
The product line has since expanded to include grease interceptors, storm shelters and, when proximity and economy make it more practical, pouring products such as MSE wall panels and retaining walls for other precasters.
With three brothers, two sisters and two brothers-in-law running the business – and with Milton still involved – Lee’s Precast is genuinely a family-run company. Growing up around the family business, the children became acclimated to the intricacies of running a precast plant at an early age, especially the boys as they learned the trade by toiling away on the plant floor.
Allen Lee, who now serves as general manager, along with his brothers, began their mastery of all things precast at around age 10. Working in the shadows of a formidable mixer did not intimidate them. “We used to stand on top of a 5-gallon bucket to get to the levers to operate it,” said Allen.
Not even the trucks could deter them as they learned to back them up to the product, hook them up and load them – with just one minor obstacle: “The only way we could reach the clutch and brake was to sit on the front of the seat, lean up and touch the floor,” said Allen.
As the boys came of age, so did the business as a new building with a batch plant was erected. “After we built the building, we poured for a while with just a mobile truck, and then we ended up with a drum mixer underneath a stationary, permanent volumetric batching system so we could mix SCC,” said Allen, referring to self-consolidating concrete. “It took about 20 minutes to do a batch of 3 yards. It was a small drum, but that’s what we used.”
As time marched on, some of the family members went to work for other companies temporarily, and Allen himself served as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance service while he worked his way through college. “I still keep up my license,” he said. “It’s not something I will ever want to have to go back to, but I enjoy helping people. You never know when you can help somebody.” And that speaks to the values the Lees adhere to.
Milton is now semi retired, but he still remains very active not only in the company but also in the local community. “He’s a key, integral part of the business,” said Allen, adding that his father will still weigh in on important business decisions.
A solid foundation
Milton handed down more than just a concrete plant to his children – they also picked up on his strong moral values. He recalled one instance where he was providing a large number of septic tanks to a contractor. Meanwhile, another customer had called wanting a tank delivered at the same time. “He said, ‘Tell the other guy that you broke down,’” explained Milton. “I said, ‘If I tell him that, you won’t ever believe another word I tell you.’”
It’s an example of the precedents of honesty and integrity he has set for his children. “We’ve always built our service on being honest and ethical, and doing the right thing as if we’re getting the product ourselves,” said Allen. “When you make a mistake, own it! Take care of the customer, and put yourself in their shoes for a moment when something happens.”
Such integrity is the foundation upon which Lee’s Precast has been built, a foundation that supports a dedicated customer base. That level of integrity is the reason why Lee’s Precast has delivered product as far as California. “It was just one of those unique deals. The freight and all that seems crazy, and the logistics of getting it out there,” said Allen.
“And we took a storm shelter, a 6 by 12, up to Harrisburg, Virginia,” said Milton. “It went to a power company over there, nearly to Richmond, Virginia. W-a-a-a-ay in the backwoods.”
The storm shelter was ordered by a contractor who had previously worked with Lee’s Precast and decided to stick with what he knew. “He liked our product and just told them if he was going to do the job, he was going to use us,” said Allen. “So we’ve had some situations like that where they could have gotten it cheaper. But overall, we try to find them the closest precaster, because there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and trying to weigh in all the risk in shipping something that far, and then if something’s not right. But if they’re set on using your product, all you can do is make sure everything is like it’s supposed to be before it ships.”
Lee’s Precast now uses SCC in all its products, and includes Helix steel fibers in most products to lessen the need for traditional steel reinforcement. Rebar can be spaced farther apart in some products, but storm shelters are cast with no rebar at all.
Making improvements doesn’t happen overnight, of course, so transitioning to SCC was the culmination of a long learning process. SCC and the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) have been two major factors in making Lee’s Precast more efficient in its production processes.
“We really fell in love with the SCC concrete,” said Allen. Problems like dragging around stinger vibrators, the hazards of standing on the forms to vibrate, and inconsistent batches all went away, he said. “Overall it produces a product that we’re happy with, and we feel like our customers are getting the best option out there. It makes a lot better-looking product.”
Besides the typical trial-and-error batches to get the SCC mix to behave properly, there was the problem of leaking forms because of SCC’s lower viscosity. Adding more fines to the mix helped to minimize the leakage, said Allen, but there were other issues to address. To that end, getting in on the NPCA Plant Certification Program brought production efficiency to a new dimension, including a revitalized forms maintenance program, more precise recordkeeping and so forth.
“We just had to do a little bit of form maintenance on some of them, and that’s something NPCA has helped us with and gave us some tolerances to go by,” said Allen. “Now we don’t have much leakage on our forms.
“We started doing our weights, and we figured out that we were wasting a lot of material,” added Allen. “Our cost was just going through the roof. We figured out how much money we were throwing away every month.”
Taking NPCA classes and sitting in on NPCA webinars has provided a shot in the arm for the employees as well. “NPCA has been great in providing a lot of these classes that they’ve taken,” said Allen. “Some of the classes have been online and that’s helped, and some of them we’re getting at The Precast Show. And that’s allowed us to have the confidence and the knowledge for taking on new projects.”
The recession slowed the company down but could not stop it. As with most precasters, Lee’s Precast had to downsize, but there was just enough work to help the company hang on. “In 2008, had we not been in commercial stuff, we probably wouldn’t be here,” said Milton. “But the commercial carried us through the recession.”
Things have gone considerably better over the past few years. “We had to buy more forms to do some different products that we weren’t doing,” said Allen. “But it let us do more jobs, because we just noticed that we were losing some work.”
Milton added that in 2011 the company made 600 storm shelters. “They poured them three times a day,” he said. “When I started, I was glad to get one pour a day.”
Allen countered by saying that technology has changed dramatically since then, and so has the way they do business. “We’re doing our own testing in-house, our own breaks, and our plant is MDOT certified from Mississippi so we can produce structures for the state.”
And now they are feeling their growing pains more than ever. “We filled up this building where you can barely walk through it,” said Allen. “We’ve got to do something.” Even now they are having discussions about what that “something” is, but it will likely include more covered production space and perhaps more cranes.
Whatever it is, you can be sure that customer service and a quality product will be priorities. If attention to customers’ needs has been the water that helped Lee’s Precast grow, then more efficient production has been the fertilizer. The sunshine has come from within the family itself, and with all the other elements the company is planted in fertile soil for a thriving future.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor.